Have the Hard Talk: Tips for Fierce Conversations

Two happy women sitting by the window


Better conversations help every business, but leaders don’t always do the work to make them better. As Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” And conversations encompass both sides of this coin. The truth is good conversations can be scary. They require vulnerability and authenticity. But gathering the courage to have these conversations is worthwhile for the good they can do.

Fierce Conversations author Susan Scott believes people get to the heart of their problems by learning to be honest with themselves and with those around them through frank, honest, and real conversation. She defines fierce conversation as those in which we get out of our heads and come into the conversation and make it real. Fierce conversations involve determining what the heart of the issue is, why it is significant, as well as figuring out how to resolve it. They are essential for healthy relationships and communication in the workplace and personal lives.

In this newsletter, we’ll explain some of Scott’s core communication concepts so that you can be better equipped to tackle the hard conversations that your business needs to grow and thrive.

Conversations Are the Work of the Leader

Scott writes that “while no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a business, a career, a marriage, or a life, any single conversation can” (1). To create opportunities for change, a leader needs to be mindful of creating a culture where conversations can thrive. To avoid a game of chicken, you cannot wait for others to take the leap to start the conversations your business needs.

Dive head-first into communication yourself. As the head of your business, you’ve got to be communicating — constantly and at a high level. Otherwise, how can you create a shared vision and culture?

Leaders are typically in control of –

  • What’s talked about
  • Who’s talking
  • What’s agreed upon
  • Who’s invited to the conversations 

This means they must use emotional intelligence in their conversations and make sure that everyone feels empowered to contribute. To fully open up these conversations to be places of partnership and change, leaders should keep the following three concepts in mind:

1. Gradually, Then Suddenly

In Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, one character asks another how they went bankrupt. The reply has become iconic: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”  Conversations operate this way, too.

Most of our lives are spent in the “gradually.” We get caught up in the day-to-day chaos of generating leads, making sure we make it to our kiddo’s swim class, and trying to find time to connect with loved ones. Our lives are made up of small, random, and unplanned moments or opportunities that gradually and slowly lead us toward our goals.

That is, until we meet our “suddenly.” Suddenly, an unexpected deadline crops up just around the corner. Amid our overflowing to-do list, we’ve somehow dropped a ball. Or perhaps all of a sudden, an urgent decision needs to be made. 

We’ll never fully escape life’s “suddenly” moments, but avoiding kicking cans down the road will always help. The same idea applies to conversations. A suddenly is often a sign of bad communication; of not listening closely enough. When we stumble to say what we mean, or to listen enough to find common ground, or try to avoid a hard conversation out of fear, we are failing ourselves and our teams. As Jay Papasan reminds us, “If you’ve been avoiding a hard conversation, the best time to deal with it is now.” Scott agrees, writing, “If you or someone else feels a conversation is needed, it is” (99).

Avoiding a conversation accelerates us toward an outcome we don’t want. So, to avoid being surprised by a suddenly, a question for us to be mindful of is, “What are we gradually moving toward?”

2. Conversations Are Really Relationships 

Our relationships with those who matter are built one conversation at a time. But you won’t unlock the full potential of these relationships unless you learn to connect authentically and emotionally. According to Scott, the key to this is caring. And in the process of building these authentic, emotional conversations, you may reveal some useful information. As research tells us, emotions actually influence our decisions just as much as our rational brains do.

In fact, Phil Jones’ break down of the three human motivations all relate to emotions:

  1. To run toward something that’s going to make us more comfortable.
  2. To run from something that’s making us uncomfortable.
  3. To do things that make our hearts sing.

Leaning into caring for others will create connections informed by shared motivations, and hopefully some things that make our hearts duet.

3. Conversations Begin With Ourselves, and Sometimes Involve Other People 

If you think that great conversations start when one person speaks to another, you’re incorrect. Conversations begin with the attention that we bring to the moment.

If you’re not fully present, or bring rigid, preconceived beliefs to a meeting, you can’t pull off a fierce conversation. Scott writes:

“Many so-called learning experiences don’t provide opportunities for real thinking. Meetings are just thinly veiled attempts to persuade others (employees, family members) to agree with the teacher’s (manager’s, parent’s, spouse’s) conclusions. Real thinking occurs only when everyone is engaged in exploring differing viewpoints” (29).

If we are only seeking agreement, then we are not truly looking to have a conversation. And without a fierce conversation, how can we ever find new solutions or grow? Being attentive expands the possibilities for change.

As a leader in your business and life, lean into hard conversations. See them as an opportunity to connect, learn, problem solve, and forge ahead. Gradually, one fierce conversation at a time, you can build a business and life bigger than you thought possible. 

How do you lay the groundwork for great conversations with your colleagues, friends, and family? Let us know on our Facebook page. And subscribe to our newsletter for more exciting articles and information.

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